1. The two hotels that the city belatedly rented out to serve as shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic have been in service for a little over three months of their ten-month contracts with the city. In that time, they have moved a total of 15 people into some form of permanent housing, according to the city’s Human Services Department—about 6 percent of the 230 people the city planned to cycle through around 200 hotel rooms over the life of the contracts, primarily through rapid rehousing rent subsidies.
According to a spokesman for the Human Services Department, 13 people have moved into permanent housing from the 139-room Executive Pacific Hotel, operated by LIHI on a $3.1 million contract; 10 of those received rapid rehousing subsidies. Two people have moved out of the 58-room King’s Inn, operated by the Chief Seattle Club on a $3.1 million contract, into permanent housing .
In the context of homelessness, “permanent housing” refers to the type of housing, not the length of a subsidy; rapid rehousing subsidies, for example, can last up to 12 months, but the market-rate apartments they help pay for are called “permanent” to differentiate them from transitional housing or shelter. Permanent housing can include everything from long-term supportive housing to moving in with relatives.
Both shelters include rapid-rehousing programs, which the city is funding through separate 10-month contracts. Chief Seattle Club runs its own rapid rehousing program at the hotel, at a cost of just over $800,000, and LIHI is working with Catholic Community Services, which has a $7 million contract.
“We anticipate the number of rapid rehousing enrollments to increase as people at these hotels have time to stabilize and Chief Seattle Club’s RRH program ramps up.”—Human Services Department spokesman
According to the HSD spokesman, “Chief Seattle Club case managers are working with participants to identify the best housing solution. … As with any brand new shelter, it takes time for the program to ramp up, clients to stabilize, and for people to find housing solutions that work best for them. This is why the program was designed for 10 months to allow time for individuals to connect with the best resources–whether it is rapid rehousing, diversion, or the permanent housing solutions coming online. We saw this play out at the Navigation Center when it opened. We anticipate the number of RRH enrollments to increase as people at these hotels have time to stabilize and Chief Seattle Club’s RRH program ramps up.”
When the city started intensifying encampment sweeps earlier this year, it used COVID vulnerability criteria to move people from encampments into the Executive Pacific Hotel. This has resulted in a population that faces more barriers to housing than the unsheltered population as whole, and thus less likely to succeed in rapid rehousing, which requires participants to earn enough income to afford a market-rate apartment within a few months to a year.
As a last resort, the OPA assembled a 13-person panel for a blind study. None of the panelists heard the n-word after listening to the recording for the first time, and only five heard the slur after investigators revealed the allegations against Zimmer.
LIHI director Sharon Lee told PubliCola last month that “the majority” of people living at the hotel “are not candidates for rapid rehousing.” The Chief Seattle Club did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
2. Neither an outside audio expert nor a 13-person panel could conclusively tell Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability whether an officer called a man the n-word during a 2020 DUI arrest.
1. Six Seattle Police Department officers who were in Washington, DC on January 6 for the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the attack on the US Capitol building have sued the Seattle Police Department and four individuals who filed public records requests with the department to prevent the department from disclosing their names. The six officers are currently under investigation by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) for their potential involvement in the attack on the Capitol.
According the complaint, which the officers filed in King County Superior Court on Tuesday, the six are seeking a temporary restraining order that would stop SPD from releasing their names and unredacted personnel files. SPD and the OPA will release their names and unredacted personnel files to the public unless they receive a temporary restraining order by February 25, the officers noted in the complaint.
“It is highly inappropriate for a public employer to demand that its employees disclose their attendance at a political event, and then release the identities of any employees who attended that political event to the public,” the complaint says.
The lawsuit claims that the officers will be “targeted, harassed, subjected to violent acts or sustain other irreparable harm” if their names are made public, particularly while the OPA investigations are still ongoing.
“It is highly inappropriate for a public employer to demand that its employees disclose their attendance at a political event, and then release the identities of any employees who attended that political event to the public,” the complaint says. “Just as it would be anathema for a public employer to require its employees to disclose who they voted for in any particular election, and then disclosure that information to members of the public.”
The complaint says the officers did not take part in the Capitol attack, and that if their names come out, the officers will be “painted as ‘criminals’ or ‘extremists’ solely by virtue of their constitutionally-protected attendance at a political speech and rally.” It also argues that releasing the officers’ names may violate state law, which prohibits government agencies from disclosing records connected to ongoing investigations into violations of federal, state or local laws.
If the officers receive a temporary restraining order from the court, they will then seek a permanent injunction preventing SPD from disclosing their names in the future.
2. During a wide-ranging briefing about the hotel-based shelters Mayor Jenny Durkan announced this week, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller fielded questions from the council about the scope of the program, who it will serve, and why the mayor’s office seems so attached to partnering with a specific hotel in downtown Seattle, the Executive Pacific Hotel. The city fully rented the same hotel at the beginning of the pandemic for first responders and, when first responders didn’t use the rooms, for nurses and other essential workers. The hotel remained almost entirely vacant for the duration of the lease, which cost the city about $4 million.
As we reported earlier this week, the announcement confirms PubliCola’s previous reporting that Chief Seattle Club will operate a shelter and rapid rehousing program out of King’s Inn in Belltown, and LIHI and Chief Seattle Club will run a similar program out of the Executive Pacific.
Although Sixkiller echoed Durkan’s announcement that the two hotels will provide 220 rooms for people experiencing homelessness, the actual number is closer to 200, because some of the rooms at both hotels will be used for case management, live-in staff, and other purposes. That’s about 100 less than the 300 hotel rooms the city announced it would provide last October, when the estimate for the hotels to open was no later than January. The city now says both hotels will open sometime in March, more than a year after the mayor declared a COVID-19 state of emergency.
“Our goal here is sort of a ‘both, and,’ council member—both individuals who have high acuity needs as well as others.”—Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller
The mayor’s office has referred to the hotels as a yearlong program, but the plan includes a total of at least two months to ramp up and ramp down the programs, so the planned duration of the actual shelters is more like nine to ten months.
The program has changed in other ways. Although the budget action appropriating city funds for the “shelter surge” explicitly said the hotel program would serve people with the greatest service needs—who happen to be the group causing the greatest “disorder” in areas like downtown and Pioneer Square—LIHI plans to serve people who can more easily transition into the rapid rehousing program that is also a key component of the mayor’s plan.
Councilmember Dan Strauss asked Sixkiller whether the program would also help “high-acuity” clients, as the deputy mayor said it would as recently as last December, when Sixkiller brought advocates from the Public Defender Association and REACH, two groups that serve high-needs unsheltered people, along with him to the council’s homelessness committee to promote the program.
“[With] all of our shelter units, we are trying to pair individuals with the housing that best meets their needs and the services that they need to be successful in making that transition from being outside and into housing and on the journey, hopefully, into permanent housing,” Sixkiller told the council yesterday, “so our goal here is sort of a ‘both, and,’ council member—both individuals who have high acuity needs as well as others.”
LIHI has indicated that at least some of the people who will move into the Executive Pacific will come from other LIHI programs; Chief Seattle Club did not return a call seeking more information about their program. Referrals will go “through” the new HOPE Team, which replaced the Navigation Team, but the exact details of how that will work and how the agencies will identify hotel clients are vague; the HOPE team does not actually do outreach, but coordinates referrals from their offices.
Sixkiller would not get into the cost of each hotel room, saying that was proprietary information until the city had inked the contracts. But a back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that if the city spends all of the available money on these two hotels, the cost will work out to about $28,000 a bed, or around the same amount as the expansion of the JustCARE program the city rejected as too expensive.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold asked Sixkiller whether the “125 new shelter beds” the mayor announced this week were actually new. The two new tiny house villages were actually council additions to the mayor’s budget last year, and the WHEEL shelter opened earlier this month after the organization spent months pressuring the mayor’s office to allow them to open a nighttime shelter in City Hall, a plan the mayor’s office rejected. Sixkiller responded that he could get back to her about the “color of money” funding each part of the “surge,” prompting Herbold to respond, “This isn’t merely an academic exercise” about “the color of money” but a question of how many actually new beds will be available.
3. The Community Police Commission voted on Tuesday to approve a list of recommendations for Seattle’s upcoming contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), the largest of the city’s police unions. The recommendations address both the transparency of the city’s bargaining process and the city’s priorities during bargaining.
The commission generally agreed on the transparency proposals, which included a recommendation to require the city to make public the membership of its negotiating team, its bargaining priorities, and any concessions it makes during negotiations. Commissioners also broadly supported a recommendation that negotiators try to remove the parts of the SPOG contract that allow the agreement to supersede city law; Officer Mark Mullens, the only SPD officer on the commission, was the only member to oppose that proposal.
Over the weekend, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat argued that the solution to homelessness in Seattle—a problem that afflicts more than 12,000 people in King County—was to build 1,000 new tiny house villages and “enforce the laws” against “camping” in public areas by removing the people who remain.
To demonstrate his point, Westneat used the example of John C. Little Park, Sr. in the New Holly mixed-income housing complex, where more than a dozen tents have occupied a space near the restroom and a playground used by the community. In Westneat’s telling, workers from the Low Income Housing Institute showed up at the camp and offered them spots in tiny house villages—encampments that offer case management, privacy, and a sense of safety and community—and within “15 minutes,” nearly everyone had agreed to leave.
All that is true. But there is much more to the story. And the debate over what happened at John C. Little, Sr. Park is a microcosm of the issues Seattle will face in transitioning city-led homeless outreach from a system led by the Navigation Team to one led primarily by providers but housed, as before, inside the city.
“My office asked if LIHI was aware of any spaces where folks could, basically, safely camp and not be near playgrounds, and they offered to move them into some tiny houses that had become available. They were very knowledgeable and treated everyone with dignity.”—District 2 Council Member Tammy Morales
The first thing to know about the John C. Little encampment LIHI didn’t discover the encampment by accident—they were asked to go there by city council member Tammy Morales, who represents New Holly, at the behest of residents whose kids haven’t been able to use the playground in months. Morales said she saw her approach as a win-win: New Holly residents “got their playground back for their kids who are at home,” and 15 people, including one man who had just returned to the encampment from Harborview with a diagnosis of pneumonia, got safer places to stay.
“My office asked if LIHI was aware of any spaces where folks could, basically, safely camp and not be near playgrounds, and they offered to move them into some tiny houses that had become available,” Morales said. “They were very knowledgeable and treated everyone with dignity.”
The relocation of the people living in the park was a win for LIHI too: Proof that people prefer to move to tiny houses over traditional shelter, and that LIHI—although not authorized by the city to do outreach in encampments—is well-positioned to do so. After the move, LIHI director Sharon Lee sent a letter to HSD director Jason Johnson, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller, and Seattle Parks Department director Jesús Aguirre touting their success at John C. Little as an example of “a new way of doing outreach.”
“LIHI failed to report and bypassed an intentionally designed shelter referral process, implemented to strive for equity of access and prioritize those most in need of the City’s limited shelter resources.”—Seattle Human Services Department
“LIHI staff includes people with lived experience and outreach skills who are effective at working directly with unsheltered homeless people,” Lee wrote. “We understand LIHI is not currently being paid by HSD for ‘outreach’ nor included by HSD staff in outreach planning, but we believe, as shown by last week’s example and our work at CHOP that we are particularly effective in the field.”
LIHI’s decision to move people from the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone directly into tiny house villages in July exasperated HSD, whose director, Jason Johnson, argued that LIHI was cherry-picking clients for tiny houses that should have been available to any outreach provider in the city, not just LIHI. LIHI countered that they had to act quickly because the Seattle Police Department had threatened to remove people from the park—people that, she said, the Navigation Team had failed to shelter before LIHI came along.
Lee’s letter touting a similar action at New Holly sparked a similarly frustrated response from HSD. In an email to city council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis, an HSD staffer, speaking for the agency, wrote:
LIHI is required by contract to report vacancies at tiny house villages and the Lakefront Community House to HSD, so that folks living unsheltered in tough conditions across Seattle may access these sought-after public resources. In this instance LIHI failed to report and bypassed an intentionally designed shelter referral process, implemented to strive for equity of access and prioritize those most in need of the City’s limited shelter resources. By circumventing this process, eleven individuals were prioritized for referrals as a result of a location-based outreach effort—potentially taking those highly sought after shelter resources away from other unsheltered individuals with higher needs in other parts of the city. …
It’s also worth mentioning that LIHI is not contracted by the City to do outreach, nor to decide who can or cannot access tiny houses and enhanced shelter. At times, LIHI has shied away from taking in more high-need individuals into their shelters, leaving very vulnerable people on the streets—which is one of the reasons why outreach is conducted by professionally trained outreach agencies like DESC’s HOST program, Chief Seattle Club, Urban League and REACH. This system-wide perspective is something contracted agencies on their own do not have, but would continue to be leveraged by the Unsheltered Outreach and Response Team or HOPE team, in partnership with providers, this year and beyond.
The new HOPE program, which was part of a compromise between the mayor and council on homelessness outreach and engagement, is supposed to serve as a sort of governmental nerve center connecting outreach providers in the field with the most appropriate shelter and service referrals for unsheltered people they encounter in the field.
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Whether it will work that way is an open question. Transitioning to a system where outreach providers use a city-run system to make referrals will require significant resources as well as major culture shifts within agencies accustomed to seeing the city as a roadblock. LIHI’s decision to go around the process the city is working to establish is just one example of how agencies may choose to circumvent a new centralized system that, in the interest of fairness to people living unsheltered, creates an extra layer of process.
1. Two mobile hygiene trailers that the city of Seattle is renting from a California-based company called VIP Restrooms will likely cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a month to operate, Seattle Public Utilities confirms. The city budget adopted last year included funding to purchase and operate five mobile hygiene trailers, which include showers and toilets, at an estimated cost of $1.3 million, but the mayor’s office and the Human Services Department, which oversaw the project until SPU took over last month, did not start working to procure them until mid-March, when the COVID-19 epidemic was already underway and most of the available trailers had been snapped up by other jurisdictions.
The city paid $14,000 to tow the two trailers from California to Seattle, according to a spokeswoman for SPU, and will pay $36,000 a month to rent them from VIP Restrooms. On top of that base cost, the city will pay between $22,800 and $136,800 a month to pump out wastewater, depending on how many times the water is pumped out per day (the estimates range from once to six times daily), plus an unknown amount to clean the showers after each use, “significant costs” for cleaning and maintenance staffing, and additional money for “security [and] cleaning and hygiene supplies like towels, shampoo and soap,” according to SPU.
Security costs can be considerable, perhaps especially during the pandemic. For example, the city is currently paying Phoenix Security Corp $120,000 a month, or $90 an hour, to maintain 24-hour patrols at two “redistribution” shelters at community centers, each containing 50 guests from existing shelters run by nonprofits such as the YWCA, Catholic Community Services, and Compass Housing. While it’s unclear whether the city plans to hire Phoenix guards to patrol the restrooms as well, Phoenix recently placed a large number of ads for new armed and unarmed security guard jobs in Seattle, starting at $17 an hour.
The city paid $14,000 to tow the two trailers from California to Seattle, and will pay $36,000 a month to rent them from VIP Restrooms. On top of that base cost, the city will pay between $22,800 and $136,800 a month to pump out wastewater, plus an unknown amount to clean the showers after each use, “significant costs” for cleaning and maintenance staffing, and additional money for security and supplies, according to SPU.
Other cities provide mobile showers at much lower cost. For example, in Los Angeles, a nonprofit group called Shower of Hope operates showers at 24 sites at a much lower cost than the price Seattle is paying for its temporary shower trailers. Mel Tillekeratne, the founder and executive director of Shower of Hope, says the trailers themselves typically cost about $30,000 to buy, although “you could buy a high-end one for $60,000,” plus about $1,200 each to operate per day. Shower of Hope trailers don’t operate every day, but if they did, that would work out to about $36,000 in operating costs every month, a price tag that includes staffing (usually, shower staffers make $16 an hour, but Shower of Hope has bumped that up a few bucks during the COVID-19 outbreak).
Tillekeratne says he thinks cities like Seattle are being gouged by private companies because so many cities are scrambling to provide services during a crisis that they should have taken care of years ago. “This is decades of neglect that now they’re paying a premium to address,” he says.
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In Seattle, Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee says the shower building LIHI installed at its tiny house village in Interbay, which is hooked up to plumbing and electricity, cost about $50,000; a shower trailer with a gray water tank at Camp Second Chance in West Seattle cost between $25,000 and $30,000, plus about $1,200 a month to pump out gray water from the showers.
“For the price they’re renting [them for], we could just build them,” Lee says. Last week, Lee sent a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Human Services Department offering to “build hygiene facilities and locate them in Sodo… Rainier Valley, Capitol Hill, and elsewhere,” to staff existing public restrooms in Pioneer Square and at pools in Ballard and the Central District, and to open up more tiny house villages around the city. Lee says she has not heard back from the mayor’s office or HSD.
2. As the city of Seattle pays hundreds of thousands of dollars staffing and patrolling spaces where homeless people sleep head to toe, with six feet separating them from the people to their right and left, advocates have repeatedly made the point that congregate shelters do not allowed the social isolation that housed people are told to practice if they want to avoid COVID infection. In LA, mayor Eric Garcetti threatened to commandeer hotel rooms if the hotels didn’t make them available for homeless people.
Here in Seattle and King County, however, only a relative handful of people experiencing homelessness have been able to access hotels (well, motels) as an alternative to large mass shelters. Earlier this month, about 390 clients of three shelter providers moved to three motels in Renton, Bellevue, and SeaTac, a scant 3 percent of the county’s homeless population of more than 12,000. The city of Seattle rented out a high-end downtown hotel for first responders at a cost of around $1 million a month, but has preferred to move people from crowded shelters into slightly less crowded ones, rather than give them their own hotel rooms.
During a press briefing last week, King County health officer Jeff Duchin responded to a question about hotels by reiterating the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance for congregate shelters. Snohomish County’s Public Health Officer, Chris Spitters, said his county is promoting “widespread use of hotel/motel vouchers at an unprecedented rate,” but added that motel vouchers can have “side effects. … It’s definitely a good disease control tool to disaggregate and spread people apart. On the other hand, it moves them away from services that, in the long run, they need, so it’s a real challenge to find the balance.”
3. Meanwhile, a 180-bed “shelter tent” that deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller mentioned during a contentious public meeting about hygiene services for unsheltered people may not materialize. Homeless advocates I spoke to this week and last say that Sixkiller’s offhand comment that “we are siting a shelter tent here in the city for 180 individuals” was the first they’d heard of such a proposal, and a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army, which was supposed to staff and run the tent, would say only that “the project has been discussed [but] is not yet confirmed.” Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Durkan’s office, responded to my questions by saying, “the City is having conversations about options and there is nothing else to share at this time.”
The city of Seattle has rejected my appeal of its decision to heavily redact a set of documents about a plan—which Mayor Jenny Durkan formally scuttled around March 6—to open a safe parking lot for people living in their vehicles at Genesee Park in Southeast Seattle. The Low-Income Housing Institute had signed a contract with the city to operate the lot.
In its letter rejecting my request to see the unredacted discussion about the proposal, the city argued that because “a decision has not been made as to the siting of the potential Safe Parking Pilot program” in general, they have the right (under the “deliberative process” exemption to the state public disclosure act) to withhold the information I requested about the specific proposal the city rejected until they make a decision on whether to move forward with a safe lot at a different location. The redacted information includes a flyer, lists of media contacts, and a communications and outreach plan for the Genesee Park location, which the city is arguing are all part of the “deliberative process” that could eventually lead to a safe parking pilot somewhere else.
If the city never does announce a formal decision, they could refuse to disclose this information to the public indefinitely.
I’ve asked the state attorney general’s office, which deals with potential public records act violations, to take another look at the city’s exemption claims. In my letter, I wrote that the city’s position—that they don’t have to reveal any materials related to the rejected Genesee Park location until and unless they choose a different site for a safe parking lot in the future—leads to “the absurd conclusion that if the mayor’s office and HSD simply never make a formal, declared decision, they can withhold this information from the public forever.”
“By claiming such a broad and sweeping exemption, they are concealing information of value to the public and preventing Seattle residents from having a clear picture of why they made this decision,” I wrote.
I requested information about the process that led to the city choosing, then rejecting, the Genesee Park location for a safe vehicular residency lot, in part, because Durkan’s decision seemed abrupt. The opening date for a safe lot for vehicular residents, which had already been moved back at least twice (from January 1, to January 31, to February 28) was imminent when the first local TV news report that Genesee appeared to be the city’s preferred location hit airwaves on February 25. Pushback on the proposal, led by longtime South End gadfly (and current city council candidate) Pat Murakami, was instant and harsh. The mayor’s response was similarly swift—by March 6, she had canceled LIHI’s permit. That same day, her office sent a letter to community members and local media saying that the mayor had been “briefed for the first time on a range of issues and options for a safe parking pilot” on February 27.
Conversely, if HSD staffers had kept the mayor informed as the fall of 2018 turned into winter, then early spring, that would raise questions about why the mayor’s office seemed to be accusing her own Human Services Department of rolling out a half-baked proposal.
Given that Durkan tends to be hands-on about both minor and major decisions that come out of her office—particularly decisions that are certain to be controversial, like stopping the downtown streetcar or opening a safe parking lot in a residential neighborhood— seemed implausible that she had never been informed of the safe parking-lot options until right before it was set to open. If HSD had somehow kept all the details of the safe lot proposal away from Durkan’s desk for months while the details of the proposal were being hammered out, then finalized, that would be newsworthy. Conversely, if HSD staffers had kept the mayor informed as the fall of 2018 turned into winter, then early spring, that would raise questions about why the mayor’s office seemed to be accusing her own Human Services Department of rolling out a half-baked proposal.
The documents I received from the mayor’s office, HSD, and the Department of Neighborhoods make it clear that the mayor’s top staff—including Durkan’s deputy mayor in charge of homelessness, David Moseley, and her top homelessness advisor, Tess Colby—were well aware of plans to open a safe parking lot at one of three locations in South Seattle—Pritchard Beach, the Amy Yee Tennis Center, or Genesee Park—long before February 27. Officials with the Human Services Department began discussing where to site a safe lot as far back as October of last year, and by late January, emails confirm, Colby was pulling together information about the proposal for the mayor’s binder—a set of documents staff puts together for the mayor herself to take home and review.
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The day that Durkan apparently received these briefing materials, January 28, was also the day when Department of Neighborhoods advisor Tom Van Bronkhorst sent an urgent email with the subject line “IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED” to several of his colleagues at HSD, saying that he had just received an email from Pat Murakami—a Southeast Seattle neighborhood activist who is currently running for City Council—asking detailed questions that indicated she was aware of the three potential locations. Murakami, Van Bronkhorst wrote, “is writing an email to her list that will go out this afternoon asking for their comments on the proposed locations. Someone should give her a call with an update, more information or a request to wait for 24 hours?” Within an hour, HSD communications staffer Lily Rehrmann had responded, and within two hours, she sent a memo about her conversation with Murakami—the details of which are largely blacked out in the documents provided by the city.
On February 1, Rehrmann emailed Van Bronkhorst seeking a list of neighborhood groups near Genesee Park, which she said she needed “for the comms plan for the safe parking pilot per the Mayor’s office.” That plan went out to the mayor’s office, including Colby and the mayor’s communications director, Kamaria Hightower, on February 7. That same day, the mayor’s office responded to at least one constituent about the Genesee parking lot. On February 21, HSD interim director Jason Johnson sent a message to Deputy Mayor David Moseley—Durkan’s second-in-command, and her deputy in charge of homelessness—that also included the full outreach and communications plan. (The city provided a mostly redacted copy of this document, one page of which is reproduced below).
If the mayor received briefing materials about the safe lot plan in her binder on January 28, as planned, that means a month passed between the first time she was handed details about the proposal and the date when she said she received her very first briefing on the plan, after which she decided to cancel LIHI’s contract.
In the March 6 letter to community and media stating that she was first briefed on the proposal on February 27, Durkan’s office wrote that “[w]hile there was an initial recommendation of potential sites by City departments prepared for the Mayor, Mayor Durkan felt strongly about the need to evaluate multiple options, and to do meaningful community engagement. While a permit application was initially filed and discussion of various sites did occur before reaching the Mayor, the Mayor has made clear that the City would not move forward on a selecting a site without evaluating alternatives and without meaningful community engagement.”
Let’s consider the first potential scenario—that the mayor was aware of the Genesee Park proposal before February 27, but acted swiftly to kill the plan after her briefing. What might have changed? One thing that definitely happened between late January and late February is that Murakami mobilized, contacting the Human Services Department again on February 26, a message documented in an email from an HSD planning and development specialist telling Rehrmann to call Murakami back to answer her questions. Murakami also scheduled a public meeting of her group, the Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council, on March 6, the same day Durkan’s office announced that the city had canceled LIHI’s contract. (That meeting did take place, and was by all accounts a shit show.)
HSD, and the mayor’s office, were probably eager to get out in front of that meeting. However, there is something off-putting about their almost frantic response to Murakami, whose work as an activist has mostly involved fighting against affordable housing (and a day-labor center) in Mount Baker and who has a history of making outrageous statements about people of color and the danger of riding transit in the South End after dark.
In response to a list of questions about what Durkan knew about the safe parking pilot and when, the mayor’s office reiterated that the safe parking lot options didn’t land directly on Durkan’s desk until late February, but said that her policy staff were aware of the discussion. “Our policy team and dozens of departments work to prep ahead of briefings with the Mayor and so we can develop recommendations before a topic goes to her,” mayoral spokeswoman Chelsea Kellogg said. “That happened and in late February, the Mayor, HSD, MO, SPD and DON sat down with the Mayor for an hour so she could be briefed on the issue and make a decision on the next steps. The Mayor asked at the briefing for the City to do additional outreach.”
Given the practical realities of running the mayor’s office, this scenario isn’t out of the question: The mayor’s Human Services Department and Department of Neighborhoods worked for months crafting a safe parking lot proposal, with the knowledge of the mayor’s staff, and the mayor herself only became aware of the details right before the proposal was ready to launch. However, if this second version is accurate, it means that Durkan spent an hour or so looking at the proposal that had taken her departments (with buy-in from her HSD director and deputy mayor) months to craft, considered the PR ramifications of opening a safe lot that was unpopular with at least one group of neighborhood activists, and abruptly killed the project.
The mayor’s stated reason for stopping the safe lot—the need for extensive outreach to neighborhoods—does not appear to have led to any action: So far, it does not appear that any additional outreach has occurred. Asked about a series of outreach meetings that had been scheduled for March, Meg Olberding, an HSD spokeswoman, said that it would be premature to start the outreach process now. The mayor, Olberding said, “has asked HSD to look at a variety of sites across the City. The department is in this process now. Mayor Durkan will choose the sites at which to begin community engagement based on the results of this process. She has not made a final decision at this time, so no external work has begun.”
This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.
Private landlords aren’t the only ones taking tenants to court for unpaid rent in Seattle. As “Losing Home” points out (the September 2018 report on eviction from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project), nonprofit housing providers are also evicting low-income renters, often for what appear to be very small amounts of rent, typically less than $1,000. Of all the nonprofit providers that turned up in the groups’ survey of evictions in Seattle in 2017, one—the Low Income Housing Institute—stood out, not only for initiating more evictions than any other provider, but for charging legal fees that often far exceeded the amount of rent a tenant owed, according to the report.
“[I]n cases where the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) sued a tenant for nonpayment of rent, the median rent demanded was $551 and the median legal costs added to the tenant’s balance was $761.25,” the report states. (Tenants who lose eviction cases, including tenants who live in nonprofit-run housing, typically have to pay attorneys’ fees in addition to whatever they owe their landlords. These fees are not capped and are frequently more than the amount of unpaid rent a tenant owes.) “Given that LIHI specializes in providing affordable housing to low-income tenants, the imposition of an additional $761.25 to the tenant’s balance is substantial and likely to interfere with the tenant’s ability to find new housing in the future.” In 2017, the report notes, LIHI initiated 54 eviction cases in Seattle over unpaid rent, and ended up evicting all but eight of those tenants.
“When we look at the overall eviction rates, LIHI is a lot higher than all the other” nonprofits, says Edmund Witter, managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project. “They evicted pretty much everyone they actually started an eviction against.” According to the data used in the report, the amount evicted tenants owed LIHI ranged from $49 to $1,250. “In all cases in which the Low Income Housing Institute sought back rent at or below $500, the tenant was evicted,” the report concludes.
LIHI director Sharon Lee says the organization “go[es] out of our way to help people by getting our social managers or caseworkers to help them find funds so that they can pay the rent, and we’re very generous when it comes to payment plans.” But, she adds, the organization has to draw lines. “Even if you are very sympathetic, if you let a whole group of people [go without paying rent], and then they tell their neighbors, ‘I’m not paying the rent,’ it will start affecting our ability to operate our housing. If we want to be developing more housing, we can’t say to our funders, ‘The budget is just out of whack and we need more subsidies.’”
It’s notable, however, that other nonprofit housing providers that serve formerly homeless clients, such as Pioneer Human Services, Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing, Services of Western Washington, and the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), rarely appear to evict tenants for failing to pay rent. According to court records, DESC evicted seven people in 2017, all for violations unrelated to rent, including violence against staff, dealing drugs and trafficking in stolen goods. “We try to come up with solutions to avoid people losing their housing,” says DESC director Daniel Malone. “We regard housing loss as a failure of ours, not just of the person.” Like Lee, Malone says that unpaid rent adds up and can eat into his organization’s bottom line; however, Malone says DESC is “not about to kick someone out on the streets [simply] because of unpaid rent.”
Lee contends that neither the raw data nor the eviction filings themselves reflect every reason for an eviction. “It could be nonpayment of rent, it could be breaking the lease, it could be violence, [or] in some cases, it could be housekeeping—if the unit fails a government inspection,” Lee says. “We also have people who intentionally do damage [or] who refuse to follow direction when it comes to pest control or bedbugs.” At the request of Seattle magazine, Lee looked at three specific cases, chosen at random from the 54 nonpayment cases listed in the report. For all three, Lee cited additional violations that she said contributed to LIHI’s decision to evict, including “violent and threatening behavior” toward other tenants, unauthorized guests and refusal to accept case management.
“We try not to evict people, because we don’t want to have people return to homelessness,” Lee says. “But we also know that some people, particularly young adults, may not work out in one place, and they may go somewhere else and have it be a good fit. We have housed people who have been evicted from DESC. It’s not like only one agency takes the ‘tough’ people.”
1. Last month, about an hour before the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board’s was scheduled to hold its monthly meeting, board chair Casey Gifford got a call from Evan Philip, the boards and commissions administrator for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office. Philip told Gifford that he was calling to let her know that the meeting she was about to chair would be her final meeting—the mayor had decided not to reappoint her for a second term. Then, Gifford recalls, he asked her if she had any questions.
Gifford, who works as a planner with King County Metro and serves on the Cascade Bicycle Club board, was in shock. “I said that I was surprised to be receiving that information so close to the meeting and that I would need some time to process it,” she says. A few days later, she recounts, “I called him and left several voice mails” requesting a meeting or a phone call to discuss some questions she had about Durkan’s decision. Philip responded on November 16 with a terse email, explaining that “other Seattle residents had expressed interest in serving on this Commission and in the spirit of expanding civic engagement, we offered the position to another applicant.” In a subsequent email, he elaborated—sort of. “As mentioned earlier, the Mayor is committed to bringing in new voices and appoint those that have a lived experience to our Boards. As you may be aware, reappointment to a Board or Commission is not guaranteed.”
Like every mayor, Durkan is remaking the city’s bureaucracy, including the volunteer boards and commissions, in her own image. But several advocates told me they’re worried that Durkan is pushing bike advocates affiliated with activist groups like Cascade and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways aside as part of a transportation agenda that prioritizes transit (and driving) over cycling. The mayor’s office denies this, and points out that Durkan appointed Cascade’s executive director, Richard Smith, to serve on the committee advising the mayor’s office on the Seattle Department of Transportation director selection.
Durkan’s new appointee, Selina Urena, is a former fundraiser for BikeWorks who now works for the Transportation Choices Coalition, a group whose former executive director, Shefali Ranganathan, is now deputy mayor. Urena was nominated by Durkan directly, without going through the usual application process, which includes one-on-one interviews with members of a bike board committee established explicitly for that purpose. In an email responding to my questions about the mayor’s decision not to appoint Gifford, Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice said, of Urena (who uses they/them pronouns), “they are a multimodal transportation user and enjoys exploring the City by bike” and referred me to Urena’s TCC bio.
“I don’t think that the board is being set up for success. … There a lot of institutional knowledge that has been lost.” – Casey Gifford, former Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board chair
Gifford says Philip never explained why Durkan did not reappoint her to the board, nor what he meant by “lived experience.” (Gifford is a young woman of color who uses a bike as her primary form of transportation.) She adds that in her experience, it’s unusual for the mayor’s office to take such a direct role in the appointment process, which usually involves an application and interview process with members of the board itself. “I know that the mayor’s office was more involved in the process than they ever have been in the past, and that they they knew who they wanted and pushed those people forward even without the recommendation of the board members who were reviewing apps with a set criteria and a set process,” Gifford said. “It didn’t sound like the mayor’s office was using those criteria, and it wasn’t really clear what criteria they were using.”
Gifford’s departure means that the bike board will be made up almost entirely of newcomers at a time when the fate of the city’s planned bicycle infrastructure is very much up in the air. Just one member, city council appointee Amanda Barnett, is continuing into a second term. “I don’t think that the board is being set up for success,” Gifford says. “There are now seven of 12 [board members] that are brand new, and it takes a while to get up to speed on how the board works and how to be effective. … There a lot of institutional knowledge that has been lost.”
Gifford may have another opportunity to serve on the board yet. City Council member Mike O’Brien, who says he considered the way Gifford was informed her term was ending “kind of unprofessional and not worthy of someone [Gifford] who’s doing really good work,” says he’ll nominate her himself if she wants to continue to serve. “It’s important to have new perspectives and new energy, but it’s also important to have some people who have been around,” O’Brien says. Gifford says she has talked to O’Brien about the possibility and that “it is something that I am considering.”
2 .Safe Seattle, an online group that recently filed paperwork to become a 501(c)4 political nonprofit (via), is suing the city and the Low-Income Housing Institute to force the closure of a LIHI-operated “tiny house village” in South Lake Union, using many of the same arguments that a statewide anti-labor group, the Freedom Foundation, made when it filed a land use petition to to prevent the facility from opening back in June. (That case is still ongoing, although the Freedom Foundation itself is no longer a named plaintiff). The Freedom Foundation’s attorney, Richard Stephens, is representing Safe Seattle in the new lawsuit, which—like the earlier complaint—charges that LIHI does not have the correct permits to operate its encampment. Unlike the earlier, dismissed complaint, which claimed that LIHI’s encampment violated the city’s self-imposed limit of three transitional encampments at at time, this complaint claims that LIHI lacks both residential permits (on the grounds that the tiny houses are residences) and a required encampment operations plan. The complaint also claims that the encampment constitutes an “assisted living facility” (on the grounds that LIHI provides housing and services to vulnerable people) for which it lacks a permit.
The amount of scrutiny that has landed on this one encampment—as well as the Freedom Foundation’s motivation for focusing on a single encampment in South Lake Union—is hard to explain. In addition to the lawsuits by the Freedom Foundation, Safe Seattle, and the individual plaintiffs (all represented by Stephens), a group called Unified Seattle has spent thousands of dollars on Facebook ads opposing tiny-house encampments, with an emphasis on the South Lake Union encampment.
3. A recent email from Queen Anne neighborhood activist Marty Kaplan, who has spent years locked in a legal battle to keep backyard and basement apartments out of single-family areas, included a telling line. After lavishing praise on the Seattle Times and its anti-density columnist Danny Westneat for joining him in the fight against missing-middle housing, Kaplan concluded: “Our ultimate goal: to negotiate a fair compromise that better meets the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners.” Left out of Kaplan’s (and the Times’) equation? The majority of Seattle’s population, who rent their homes and are probably less concerned with “meeting the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners” than they are with being able to stay in a city where laws designed to boost homeowners’ property values are making the city unaffordable for everyone else.
As I head off on a brief writing retreat (back next Monday—although there may be some surprise posts while I’m gone!), I thought it would be a good time to dust off an old classic from my (and Josh’s) PubliCola days: Isn’t It Weird That?…
So: Isn’t It Weird That…
The Freedom Foundation—a group best known for suing to allow public-sector workers to opt out of paying union dues—is suddenly getting involved in a local land-use debate in Seattle?
The Olympia-based group is asking a judge to prevent the Low-Income Housing Institute from opening a “tiny house” encampment on a city-owned piece of property in South Lake Union on the grounds that its construction permit is invalid. The lawsuit claims the city of Seattle failed to do an adequate environmental review, failed to do sufficient outreach to surrounding neighbors, and isn’t allowed to authorize more than three encampments at one time under city law.
In the lawsuit, the Freedom Foundation claims it has standing to sue the city on the grounds that it generally represents the interests of people in Washington State “in regard to governmental treatment of people at all levels.” (Somewhat) more specifically, the complaint charges that the encampment will harm the “quality of life in residing, working and owning property and businesses in the South Lake Union area… by encouraging loitering and substandard living conditions in this particular area.”
When I asked Freedom Foundation spokesman Maxford Nelsen why a group that’s ordinarily focused on state-level labor policy is getting involved in Seattle politics at the micro-micro level of a temporary encampment for a few dozen homeless Seattleites, he directed me to the attorney on the case, Richard Stephens. Stephens did not return a call for comment last week.
But Sharon Lee, the director of LIHI, contends that the city has the authority to approve additional encampments under the homelessness state of emergency, declared in 2015. Lee says LIHI is still operating under the assumption that the tiny house village will open on August 15. “We’re optimistic. We want to get homeless men and women off the streets before the winter,” Lee says.
Speaking of LIHI, Isn’t It Weird That…
Safe Seattle—a group of Seattle residents organized around the shared conviction that the city is a “shithole” overrun with “criminal vagrants” and carpeted with needles—is obsessed with Sharon Lee? What’s weird isn’t that they oppose LIHI’s work to provide temporary shelter and permanent housing to homeless people, including those in active addiction—that’s right on brand for them. What’s weird is how often they complain, specifically, about her salary.
“I can’t believe she makes that much!” an SS member wrote recently. “That’s crazy $ for running a non-profit for the homeless. Is that part of what is referred to as the ‘homeless industrial complex’?”
Lee makes $195,237, plus $7,374 in other compensation. That’s a lot compared to what I make, and it may be more than what you make as well. But it’s not a lot compared to what the directors of other Seattle nonprofit housing providers make. For example, here’s what four directors of roughly comparable groups take home in compensation, according to their 2016 IRS filings (available at guidestar.org):
• Gordon McHenry, president and CEO, Solid Ground: $183,026, plus $19,726 in other compensation
• Michael Rooney, executive director, Mount Baker Housing Association: $162,250, plus $12,694 in other compensation
•Bill Rumpf, president, Mercy Housing Northwest $206,530, plus $13,300 in other compensation
• Paul Lambros, Plymouth Housing: $188,465, plus $22,480 in other compensation.
And yet only one of those local nonprofit housing directors has regularly been referred to on Safe Seattle as a “poverty pimp,” a “Grifter level = 7,” and a “scammer.”
You may have noticed that I didn’t mention any other women who run nonprofit housing organizations. That isn’t because there aren’t any. It’s because Lee is the only woman in her position locally* who makes a salary comparable to her male counterparts. (Even in the nonprofit world, women tend to get paid less than men for similar work). Weird that the one woman of color who makes a salary similar to men doing similar jobs is also the only one who’s routinely lambasted for making “too much.”
Isn’t It Weird That... In the same week, in two liberal West Coast cities with booming economies and growing homelessness crises, local news media ran extremely similar stories predicting that their city’s convention business would implode if the city didn’t crack down on its homeless population?
Now, I’m not suggesting any kind of direct cooperation between stations like KIRO-7 in Seattle (which recently provided obsessive, near-dailyupdates on an unsightlyencampment across the street from its office) and, say, FOX News. But their sky-is-falling stories about convention center traffic this week did feature a number of common elements:
1. A representative from the local tourism board predicting that convention traffic is about to dry up, with no data-based evidence supporting this claim (or in the face of data that suggests the opposite). In the case of San Francisco, one representative from the local tourism board claims that an anonymous large medical group has “canceled” a convention because an advance group showed up and was horrified by rampant homelessness and crime. That quote made it into every headline I saw about the story despite the fact that what the group actually said, according to the tourism official, is that it will convene in San Francisco in 2018 and 2023, but may decide not to do so in the future. (The fact that this anonymous convention planner is also quoted as saying they plan to take their business to Los Angeles, a city with its own extremely visible homelessness crisis, suggests a number of obvious followup questions, such as: Are you aware that the LA Times refers to the homelessness situation in that city as a “Dickensian dystopia“?) In Seattle, a spokesman for Visit Seattle tells KIRO that “business may not always be so great,” citing no specific revenue trend or metric other than a general sense that “our city is out of control.”
2. No quotes from secondary sources who aren’t directly engaged in lobbying the city on the public policy they’re talking about. The San Francisco story, in fact, is based on a single source—the head of the convention bureau, who has an obvious interest in suggesting that the city needs to sweep the streets or pay the consequences in lost tourism dollars.
3. Lack of legwork. In San Francisco, newspapers and TV stations ran the story about the “canceled” convention under headlines like “SF’s Appalling Street Life Repels Residents—Now It’s Driven Away a Convention” without ascertaining which group had “canceled” (is it really that hard to figure out which “Chicago-based medical association” has 15,000 members and is holding conventions in the city in 2018 and 2023?) or looking at convention bookings to see if the loss of a single convention would make a substantial dent in tourism revenues. In Seattle, reporters failed to put tourism boosters’ claims in context, dutifully transcribing quotes about how the city’s “attractiveness… is being tarnished and diminished daily” without noting, for example, that the convention business has been so good that the convention center has been turning away “more business … than they have booked due to a lack of available dates,” according to representatives of the convention center itself. In fact, the primary constraint on the convention business has not been homeless people in alleys but sufficient space to meet demand—which is precisely why the convention center has insisted it needs a $1.6 billion expansion.
It’s easy for writers and columnists to cut-and-paste “scathing letters” warning of dire consequences if the city doesn’t clean homeless people off the streets and serve as stenographers for self-serving tourist bureaus. But it’s far more useful to the public when journalists ask tough questions, provide context, and sometimes even decline to run with alarmist stories if the reality doesn’t live up to, or even contradicts, the sky-is-falling hype.
* The only woman, that is, that I was able to find in my review of federal filings from more than a dozen local organizations that provide housing to formerly homeless and low-income people.
1. A sharply divided standing-room-only crowd gathered last Thursday at 415 Westlake—an airy South Lake Union events center that ordinarily hosts weddings, fundraisers, and bat mitzvahs—and both sides came ready to shout. About 200 people (including former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant) crammed into the space, many of them jostling for standing room in the back, to hear a presentation on a proposed “tiny house village” in South Lake Union and register their support or protest. Representatives from a new group called Unified Seattle handed out fact sheets and glossy campaign-style signs to fellow tiny-house opponents in the audience—a stark contrast to the hand-drawn, crayon-colored reading “We Welcome Our New Neighbors” that supporters of another tiny house village, at 18th and Yesler, held aloft at a similar meeting last month. Unified Seattle—a group that, according to its website, includes Safe Seattle and the Neighborhood Safety Alliance and until last week also listed Speak Out Seattle among its backers—purchased Facebook ads to encourage people to show up at the meeting. “The City Council is trying to put a new shack encampment in our neighborhood. Join us to tell them NO!” the event page urged.
The “village”—a collection of garden-shed-like temporary housing units that will occupy a city-owned lot on 8th Avenue North and Aloha Street that was previously used as a parking lot—is the subject of a lawsuit by the Freedom Foundation, a statewide group that is best known for trying to thwart the Service Employees International Union from organizing home health care workers; according to the Seattle Times, the suit contends that the city did not adequately inform the community of the proposal, did not do a required environmental review, and has exceeded the maximum number of tiny house villages allowed under city law. The opening date for the encampment, (originally scheduled for July, then quietly bumped to November in the latest version of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “bridge housing” plan) could end up getting pushed back even further.
As of January 2018, there were at least 4,488 people living unsheltered in Seattle; All Home King County acknowledges that this is an undercount, and that the total number is in reality higher.
Opponents of the tiny house village, which would be run by the Low-Income Housing Institute and would provide temporary shelter to about 65 people, focused on the fact that the encampment will not be an explicitly clean and sober environment; although drugs and alcohol will be prohibited in all common areas (and smoking prohibited throughout the site), LIHI will not go into people’s individual sheds and search for contraband, which means, in practice, that people can drink and use drugs in the houses. When Seattle homelessness strategy division director Tiffany Washington noted that this is precisely the city’s policy for dealing with people who live in regular homes (“If I’m using drugs in my house, how will you know?”)—opponents in the crowd erupted in shouts and boos. “The taxpayers don’t pay for your house!” someone yelled. “I provide my kids with rules,” a speaker said moments later, adding that if he thought they were up to no good, “I might search the room.” That prompted another shout from the back: “They’re not kids!”
Elisabeth James, one of the leaders of Speak Out Seattle, suggested that the city would be foolish to give up the revenue it receives from the parking lot where the village would be located. “I look at this parking lot that generates over a million dollars a year, then we’re going to give up that and pay to house people on a parking lot? That seems like a waste of money to me,” she said. Brandishing a four-page, folded color flyer that LIHI handed out at the meeting, James continued, “I look at this fancy folder that you guys have and I think this is a waste of money! And this is one of the reasons that the neighbors are so upset and frustrated.”
Another neighbor, condo owner and retired police officer Greg Williams, suggested that instead of allowing “the ‘homeless,’ as you call them” to live on the site and “destroy it,” they should be required to provide free labor as payment. “They can give us four hours a day. They can clean. They can do something for us to offset” what they cost the community Williams said. “We don’t live free. Why should they live free? If they want to do something, get that experience of a job. Get that experience having to be somewhere on time every day.” According to an annual survey commissioned by All Home King County, 20 percent of King County’s homeless residents have jobs; 25 percent cited job loss as the primary reason they became homeless; and 45 percent were actively looking for work.
Many people wanted to know whether LIHI or the city would be doing “background checks” on the people who want to live in the village, either to see whether they have active warrants inside or outside Washington State, or to determine whether they are local residents, as a way of weeding out homeless people who aren’t “from here.” The short answer to each question is that the city won’t exclude anyone, except registered sex offenders, from shelter because of their criminal history, and they can’t exclude people based on where they came from, because that would be housing discrimination. The longer answer is that homeless people frequently have criminal records because of minor, nonviolent offenses, either because they committed low-level crimes like shoplifting or because they violated laws against loitering, lying down, sleeping, urinating, or having an open container in public. (Open containers are illegal for everybody, but homeless people are uniquely unable to drink, or perform many other activities housed people take for granted anywhere but in public.) Basically any activity that housed people do in the privacy of their own homes becomes illegal when you do it in public; denying shelter to every homeless person who has been caught doing one of these things and locking them in jail instead would be a logistical and civil-rights nightmare, not to mention a tremendous burden on public resources.
Amid all the opposition, several people spoke up in favor of LIHI’s plan. They included Kim Sherman, a Beacon Hill resident who hosts a formerly homeless man in a backyard guest house through a program called the BLOCK Project; Mike McQuaid, a member of the South Lake Union Community Council; and Sue Hodes, a longtime activist who worked on the pro-head tax “decline to sign” effort. Hodes made an impassioned plea for the people who opposed the encampment to recognize that “poor people are people” but got shouted down when she pointed out that opponents of stopgap survival measures like tiny house villages and encampments are “mostly white, mostly middle-class.” “She’s saying nasty things! She’s attacking us!” members of the mostly white, mostly middle-class audience shouted.
2. The city’s Office of Planning and Community Development is proposing changes to the existing incentive zoning program for commercial properties, which allows developers to build taller and denser in exchange for building or funding affordable child care and housing. OCPD strategic advisor Brennon Staley presented the proposed changes, which are aimed at making the city’s various incentive zoning programs more consistent and easier to use, to the Seattle Planning Commission last Thursday.
Although most of the changes won’t have an immediate, dramatic impact on the street level in places like downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District (making it easier for developers to preserve historic buildings and affordable housing through transfers of development rights, for example, will have the result of keeping the streetscape the same), one change that could make a visible impact is the proposed update to the city’s privately owned public space (POPS) program. POPS, which developers are required to provide as part of any new development, are often hard to find, hostile to the general public, and inaccessible outside business hours. (The quintessential example is the 7th-floor plaza at the Fourth and Madison Building, accessible only from inside the building and marked only by a small sign at the building’s base. Thank former city council member Nick Licata for that modest marker!)
The proposed changes would provide more flexibility for developers to build smaller, more flexible open spaces, allow cafes, movable seating, and games to help “activate” smaller public spaces, and require that all privately owned public spaces be open between 6am and 10pm, the same hours as public parks. One commissioner, Amy Shumann, suggested that OCPD require larger signs than the small, green-and-white markers that currently point pedestrians to these spaces; another, David Goldberg, asked whether developers might be able to pay a fee instead of providing open space on site, an idea Staley shot down by pointing out that when the city has tried to do this kind of program in the past, they’ve ended up having to give the money back because they haven’t been able to collect enough money to build the spaces elsewhere.
In case you haven’t noticed, the debate about homelessness in Seattle has gotten a little toxic. At a time when homeowners show up to chant “bullshit!” at public hearings and socialists attempt to drown out city council votes they don’t agree with, it’s rare to hear about anyone actually changing their mind after talking to “the other side.” Which is why I was eager to sit down with a guy I met at a recent public meeting on a new “tiny house” village that’s currently being built in a vacant lot at 18th and Yesler and hear more about how he went from distributing flyers opposing the project to figuring out ways he could support the people living there.
Omeed, who asked me to use his first name only, joined a group called Yesler Neighbors that distributed flyers in the neighborhood around the tiny house village urging neighbors to write and call the city to demand that they put a “pause” on what they described as an “illegal encampment” based on a litany of what they described as land use and public notice violations. (See the full letter here). “We support ending homelessness in our city but believe it should be done in a transparent, legal, and thoughtful manner,” the letter left on neighbors’ doorsteps concluded.
After the meeting at Ernestine Anderson Place on South Jackson Street, which included a Q&A with project sponsors from the Low-Income Housing Institute and New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, I started chatting with Omeed outside. “I’m someone who changed his mind,” he told me—he now supported the encampment, although he still thought neighbors hadn’t received adequate information to form their own views on the project in the first place. For example, he said, he had been unable to determine whether the encampment would be “low-barrier”—that is, whether it would allow residents to consume drugs and alcohol on-site—and how the rules would be enforced. On Monday, Omeed broke ties with Yesler Neighbors to focus on other activist work—namely, electing Democrats to the state legislature through an organization called the Sister District Project, which sends activists into swing districts, like Washington’s 26th and 30th, to support Democratic candidates at the state level.
I sat down with Omeed in Pratt Park, just a few blocks from the tiny house village, which is currently under construction. Omeed, whose parents moved to the United States as refugees during the Iranian revolution, moved to Seattle about six years ago from Washington, D.C.; his wife is a native Seattleite with roots in the city going back 12 generations. They live a few blocks from the new tiny house village at 18th and Yesler.
How did you become aware that this tiny house village was being built in your neighborhood?
We got a flyer on our front door on May 15 or 16, and that same week, or shortly after, gravel started going down [on the lot]. It really did seem abrupt. We’re used to getting a certain amount of notification and time to understand what the project is. That was like—wait a second. But that part didn’t bother me as much as the fact that there were a lot of houses that did not get flyers, and there were houses several blocks further away from it, where it’s not necessarily in view, and they were flyered when I know some of the houses along the fence line never received any notice of it. I got it; some of my neighbors did not.
What did you think when you got the flyer? Were you supportive of the idea?
My initial reaction was like, ‘Cool, let’s save some lives. This might be great.’ My wife’s initial reaction was like, ‘I wonder if I can volunteer and help them with some landscaping stuff’—just do something that’s welcoming. And then we started hearing some other information, and then when you do some Google searches about these villages, Licton Springs [an encampment in North Seattle that allows drugs and alcohol] tends to be the thing that makes it up to the surface, and that was really jarring and it put some guards up. I’m a naturally defensive person. Growing up in a household where your parents are refugees, your mom’s an asylum seeker… siege mentality is a kind of natural thing to have. So my guard just tends to go up really quickly.
What was your concern related to Licton Springs?
Crime stats, the fact that there is open drug use—I don’t know how much is anecdotal or real. I only drove by. On the Aurora Avenue side, it was like, ‘Uh, this is an interesting part of town…’ Then the barbed wire along the top of it, too—it just seemed like that isn’t something that I necessarily want in my neighborhood.
You mentioned when we spoke before that your main concern was whether this tiny house village was going to allow drugs and alcohol. Can you talk more about that concern?
The flyer didn’t indicate if this site was going to be low-barrier. There was no information about it. When we went to the first meeting on the 22nd, I don’t recall that very strong commitment [to a no-drugs-and-alcohol policy] and that gave me kind of a pause. After that first meeting my guard went up a little more. More concerns started to bubble up.
I don’t think addiction is criminal. I can’t say that addicted people mean crime. I would be concerned, though, if there’s other folks that want to come there, [like] dealers. If that gets drawn over to it because they know it’s a low-barrier site where people are going to be allowed to use, that’s just not okay.
What changed your mind about this project?
I went to visit the 22nd and Union village a little while ago, and I talked with those folks, and they were just like normal working people. They’re just having a hard time. [Mayor Jenny] Durkan said in press release that these folks are, in a way, economic refugees. A segment of the population really is. Something like 40 percent, give or take, of the unsheltered population is employed in some capacity, and 20 percent of those are employed full-time. The fact that there isn’t enough housing that those folks can afford is disgusting. It’s a frustration.
I get frustrated when I hear things like Fort Lawton are held up in litigation, which just makes them more expensive to build. We declared a state of emergency a few years back and my understanding of a state of emergency is you suspend some rules and blockers because it’s a state of emergency. So I’m just thinking, what kind of state of emergency is it where things can end up in litigation or get blocked by neighbors because they’d rather have another park? We have lots of great parks. I’m not saying we shouldn’t find more ways to create green space, but this is an emergency.
So how are you feeling about the tiny house village now? Are you planning to volunteer to help them out, or put your efforts into pushing for other housing solutions, now that you know more about the project?
It takes a lot of effort to be in that mindset, to try and fight with the city and fight with this organization and do all those things. What I think might be a better use of my time moving forward, especially if I’m serious about building more housing and finding the funds to pay for it, is to make that call to the county saying, ‘You have nearly $200 million over 20 years to give to a profitable baseball team, yet you have yet to come up with a way to pay for [housing]. It’s there. We don’t have to subsidize these sport teams and these stadiums. We also don’t have to subsidize massive tax breaks to Boeing, the largest defense contractor and one of the largest companies in the world. It’s absurd to say we need to come up with these other revenue streams when the money really is there. It’s not a matter of efficiency in government or ‘audit this’ or ‘make cuts there.’ It’s, stop giving away money to people who already have millions of dollars and we’ll have it.
My wife is setting up the [National Night Out] event for our block and I said, ‘They should be invited.’ I don’t think I have to take anything out on the folks who are going to be living there. My gripes are with the city, the county, and the state—the people who refuse to actually do the things that need to be done to actually deal with this emergency. So I don’t see why I have to turn my back to those folks who otherwise need help.